Almost exactly nine years ago Downend Folk & Roots peeked, slightly hesitantly, into the world. Back then it was Downend Folk Club but the first, proper, headline act was BELLA HARDY, fresh from winning The BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year award. She was astonishing that night and gave the folk club a glow of confidence that, to be honest, it's never lost. Tonight, Bella Hardy returned to Downend for a rapturously received set. She was, to put it simply, magnificent.
The first thing that you notice about Bella Hardy is that she is effortless. Everything that she does seems entirely natural, she makes the difficult look easy. Set opener, Summer Daylight Winter Darkness, is an instrumental tune, Hardy's fiddle in harmonious, excited conversation with Danny Wallington's keyboards. SAM CARTER's guitar joins just as the tune becomes Hares on the Mountain. They slide together beautifully, all three taking this very familiar song and reminding just why we all love it so. Her fiddle and Carter's guitar have a resonant depth, working as a perfect contrast to Hardy’s voice which is playful and full of winking charm.
Hardy is a masterful storyteller. On The Herring Girl she tells of strong women living tough lives but does so with an assurance and eloquence that few have. Violin and guitar, again, combining to help tell the story and the piano filling in the details. The Navigator's Bride is another female story, another important voice, another that looks at the male world with a sense of bewilderment. Hardy inhabits these people but, unlike so many folk songs, there's no sense of the victim here. There's a twinkle amongst the toughness as the trio build to a beautiful crescendo.
Her own songs have the same timelessness that any number of trad songs have. When she does dip into the canon, however, her interpretations have subtleties that lesser artists can't hope to match. Awake Awake (also known as Drowsy Sleeper or Silver Dagger) comes from her latest album, Love Songs, and is a showcase for her extraordinary voice. Freed of the violin she allows Carter to provide the pop-tinged stylings whilst Hardy coos soothingly. My Johnny was a Shoemaker is more upbeat, full of whoops, and has that quality that's impossible to put your finger on, you can just feel it in your heart. Loving Hannah is best known for the Mary Black version but Hardy's version does incredible justice to it, her voice just as good as the Irish superstar's. Carter, intricate and delicate once again.
An a capella take on Down to the River sees jaws dropping and hearts exploding. Echoes of Alison Krauss, of course, but Hardy, once again, proves that she is a match for any of the great female singers you could name. As befits an artist who is ten albums into her career and has made music influenced by Japan, America and the British Isles, her willingness to try anything proves that she is a graceful master of her art.
The set ends with Tequila Moon, a song that sways with a heat-haze shimmer. On this humid evening it seems the perfect fit, plucked violin creating a ukulele strum, piano and guitar setting up a porch-swing rhythm whilst Hardy sleepily, easily sends us off, humming into the night.
Before Hardy's triumphant return was HANNAH SCOTT, a singer of contemporary folk songs who easily held a capacity Downend in the palm of her hand. By the end of her short set, she had opened her heart and shown us the inner workings of her soul. Every song that hit the hardest uncovered something about the relationships that she has with those closest to her. My Dad & I was wonderfully sweet, her high voice never wavering. The Boy in the Frame is about her beloved grandmother and also carries huge emotion within the most delicate vessel. Just piano and voice, yearning and memory.
All of this emotion is dealt with with the lightest of touches. It is, however, with Skimming Stones that Scott's potential as future headliner can be seen, as clear as day. Taken from her lovely new EP, Ancient Lights, it is almost hymnlike, graceful and impossibly moving. If only the words "radio friendly" didn't carry nasty connotations then Skimming Stones is radio friendly. It's the sort of song that could easily connect with everyone.
Both Scott and Hardy have an easy charm and, I suspect, both will be welcomed back to Downend time and time again.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photos: Barry Savell
Back in May 2014, Downend Folk Club (as we were then called) held our first official concert. The guest was the recently crowned BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year... a certain BELLA HARDY. It was the sign of things to come as Downend Folk & Roots (as we are now called) continues to bring the very best folk, roots and acoustic music to the area.
That it’s taken nine years to have Bella return, though, makes it long overdue. Performing solo back in 2014 at Frenchay Village Hall, this is set to be an altogether grander affair, as she’s joined by Sam Carter (guitar) and Daniel Wallington (keys) in the glorious surroundings of Christ Church Downend.
Bella has sung unaccompanied ballads at a sold-out Royal Albert Hall, learnt the songs of Chinese farmers during her time as British Council Musician in Residence in Yunnan Province, and spent a year in Tennessee as a ranch hand, looking after horses, fiddle-singing in the diners, and immersing herself in the music culture of Nashville. With unflinching courage, Bella has explored and blurred musical boundaries from a mastery of traditional music to pop production and electronics, releasing ten solo records including her Best Of in 2019. With her acclaimed, mesmerising voice and earthy fiddle accompaniments, Bella now writes and composes in her beloved Peak District, conjuring and twisting stories that call straight to the heart.
Joining Bella on the bill will be HANNAH SCOTT. From Suffolk via Italy, Hannah performs contemporary folk music and is building a loyal following thanks to her distinctive voice, strong melodies and thought-provoking lyrics. Her music has been heard in hit TV series, Grey’s Anatomy, on BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music including a live session on Dermot O’Leary’s show, while praise for her work has arrived from publications such as MOJO, The Guardian and Clash Magazine.
Tickets for the concert, which takes place at CHRIST CHURCH DOWNEND on Friday 16 June 2023, are available online HERE and from MELANIE'S KITCHEN in Downend (cash only). They are priced at £15 each in advance or £17 on the door. Doors open at 7.30pm and the entertainment starts around 7.45pm.
There will be a bar, stocking cider, soft drinks, wine, hot drinks and real ale from locally-based HOP UNION BREWERY. Audience members are encouraged to bring their own glass/mug/tankard, as well as reusable bottles for water, as part of the drive to be more environmentally aware; there is a 50p discount for those that do. There will also be sweet treats available at the bar courtesy of Radstock-based THE GREAT CAKE COMPANY, as well as a prize draw, which helps to fund the support artists for each concert.
There's something so wonderful about listening to someone who just knows stuff. Just hanging out while they spin stories, digress, mine fact-y nuggets. While they find truths in the everyday and fashion magic from mere words. It's just the greatest thing.
JON WILKS knows stuff and hanging out with him brings you more stories than you can count, more stuff than you could ever imagine.
He is a polymath; a singer of traditional songs, a songwriter, a lyrical guitarist, a podcast host (THE OLD SONGS PODCAST), the curator of a fine and folk-y website (TRADFOLK). He's a master of digression and an opener of worlds.
Again and again, he tells us a story before singing a song. One is about a pub, The Fox in Birmingham. He tells us where it would have been (on the site of a Primark, naturally) and who drank there. He tells us of street hawkers, of ballad sellers, of Broadsides and the reasons they were written. He does it with love, wonder and a sense of fun. He brings the whole scene to life. And then he sings the song - The Boatswain - and adds further layers. It's an old, old song, it's a little bit rude (Cecil Sharp described it as "putrid") and packed full of characters. Each slightly more despicable than the last but each as real as you or I.
Characters are the currency that Wilks deals in. Whether they are murderous wives, cheating tailors, thoughtful down-and-outs or strolling dandies, his songs are a parade of real life. A flickering cine film of black and white lives, painstakingly hand coloured to bring out every striking detail. Pretty Girls of Brummagem is rich in humanity and Wilks clearly finds the people he's singing about as fascinating as we do.
Many of the songs sung were collected hundreds of years ago - he describes them as "authorless songs" - and Wilks is a wonderful interpreter of these corners of the folk canon. His voice is strong and honest, the odd flattened vowel peeking through reminding you of his Midlands upbringing. The Fowler is a song, he tells us, that shares its root origin with Swan Lake. It's a song that tells the age-old tale of a man who mistakes his girlfriend for a swan and shoots her. Of course. Johnny Sands is taken from a book called The Funniest Songs in the World and is, in fact, a nasty little thing about a tired marriage. Wilks delivers it unaccompanied and holds the audience in amused raptures.
For all of the ancient characters, the Broadsides and the old, Midlands-centric songs it is when Wilks sings his own songs that you cherish his company. Greek Street, taken from his brilliant new album Before I Knew What Had Begun I Had Already Lost, is wide-eyed with the transience of love during a teenage summer. It's awash with the romanticism of a Soho sunrise after a debauched night out and is, very simply, a great London song. Tape Machine is equally gorgeous. A song of love and luck, of surreptitious recordings and the joy of a new city early in the morning. It's warm, affectionate and very beautiful. Durham Fayre, another of his own, unfurls the lives of real people, hard work and honest lives. In contrast to songs about shooting swans this is what a proper folk song should do, it reveals something about all of us and the everyday, interesting things that make us up.
Before Wilks there is another fine interpreter of old songs. JENNIE HIGGINS is from around these parts and is, quite clearly, a little bit giggly-nervous. Not that she has any cause. Most of her set is a cappella, augmented now and again by a shruti box. She has a sweet, clear voice and, on trad favourites Let No Man Steal Your Thyme and The Cutty Wren, she sings with the gift of a natural storyteller. It is on the slightly bawdy My Husband's Got No Courage in Him that she really allows her voice off the leash though, the nerves all gone and a sing-along inspired.
If being in the presence of someone that revels in just knowing stuff is a wonderful thing, then an evening with Jon Wilks is easily as good as it gets.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photos: Barry Savell
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